These days, we hear the term "Founding Fathers" tossed around a lot in political discussions, usually in terms of asking what the Founding Fathers "intended" or "would have wanted." But what do we really know about our Founding Fathers? By the way, the term itself wasn't actually coined until a 1916 speech by Warren G. Harding. Here are a few intriguing but lesser-known facts about just a few of the people who might qualify for the appellation Founding Fathers (or, in one case, Mothers):
1. There's not really a hard-and-fast list.
Given how often people refer to the Founding Fathers, you'd think we could at least pin down exactly who they were, but there's no official roster. One of the most common criteria is that they were those who signed the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, that would exclude George Washington, one of the most famous Founding Fathers of all. He was a bit busy in New York, preparing to lead the Continental Army to defend Manhattan from the British. Other times we consider the Founding Fathers to be those individuals who were present at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the creation of the Constitution. But that would exclude John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson. So for the purposes of this list, we've allowed "Founding Fathers" to cover individuals who played some integral part in the founding of our nation, including one Founding Mother, John Adams' wife Abigail.
2. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Both men died on July 4, 1826. Jefferson was the victim of combined effects of a variety of ailments that had been plaguing him for years, Adams of congestive heart failure. At the time, Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth President of the United States. He declared the timing of the two men's deaths "visible and palpable remarks of divine favor."
3. Some of the Founding Fathers had unusual pets.
Or, at least, pets with unusual names. John Adams' dog was named Satan, while Washington had a whole passel of dogs with names like Sweetlips, Drunkard, Tipsy, Vulcan, and Taster. The strangest pets definitely belonged to Thomas Jefferson. During his tenure as the third President of the United States, TJ kept a pair of grizzly bears in a cage on the White House lawn.
4. Yes, George Washington wore dentures, but they weren't made of wood.
In fact, by the end of his life, Washington had only one natural tooth left in his mouth. The rest were made from a variety of materials, including ivory, bone, silver, and even human teeth, just taken from other humans, most likely from his slaves.
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5. Among Benjamin Franklin's many inventions were bifocals and the lightning rod.
Ben Franklin is perhaps as (or more) well known for being an inventor as for being a Founding Father. His inventions weren't always popular with everyone, however. Some clergy of the day even believed that the lightning rod was sinful, as it attempted to control a power they thought should belong only to God.
6. Abigail Adams told her husband John to "remember the ladies."
In a letter which she wrote to John Adams and the other members of the Continental Congress in March of 1776, she famously cautioned them to "remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors," further warning that, "If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."
7. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had a longstanding feud, which finally erupted into a duel.
The duel was fought on July 11, 1804, and ultimately ended Hamilton's life. (He died of his injuries the following day.) Because dueling was illegal at the time, Burr was charged with murder, though the charges were ultimately dropped. This wasn't the end of Burr's bad behavior, though. Burr was later charged with treason after becoming involved in a plot to conquer lands then held by Spain in the southwestern part of the continent in order to start a new nation. In spite of pressure from Thomas Jefferson (under whom Burr had served as Vice President during Jefferson's first term), Burr was ultimately found not guilty. Of course, you may now be familiar with this duel thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
8. Do you know why we call a signature a "John Hancock?"
Because that euphemism's namesake was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, and he signed it in very large letters. To hear him tell it, he did this because he wanted King George III to be able to "read it without glasses."
9. While John Hancock's signature may be the most famous on the Declaration, it's not the most valuable.
That title goes to a little-known Founding Father named Button Gwinnett, a delegate from Georgia who died within a year of signing the Declaration of Independence. The most recent sale of Gwinnett’s John Hancock was for $722,500.
10. Though he was one of the most influential thinkers of the American Revolution, only six people attended the funeral of Thomas Paine in 1809.
He was buried in a grave on his farm, but later dug up and transported to London for a "proper burial" that never occurred. Instead, Paine's remains were passed down through inheritance and eventually sold off to different collectors and scattered to "the four corners of the world."
11. James Wilson was one of the first Justices of the Supreme Court—and the only one to ever be jailed.
A rather dubious honor he holds to this day. After becoming an Associate Justice, he spent time in debtor's prison after losing money on land speculation; an unfortunate turn of events that affected more than a few of our Founding Fathers.
12. Francis Hopkinson once took credit for designing the United States flag.
If you want proof, he even sent in an invoice, in which he asked for payment in the form of a case of wine.
13. In addition to being a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush was the "father of American psychiatry."
Rush was one of the first to believe that mental illnesses were caused by imbalances in the brain, although he believed blood levels were the culprit. He was also one of the first people to put forth the idea that alcoholism was a disease, a concept later used by those in the temperance movement to help bring about Prohibition.
14. Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence and helped found the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
While he may be more famous for the former, Carroll’s railroad is still well known today by the acronym B&O Railroad. You may know it as one of the four railroads in the popular board game Monopoly.
Ultimately, our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were just people and, like all people, were full of qualities both good and bad, not to mention simply unusual. The more you learn about them as flesh-and-blood human beings, the more interesting stories you come across…
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